Mr. Speaker, I am happy to take part in this opposition day debate on a topic I feel is important. It is important to discuss this issue, because it is a terrible ecological disaster. The motion is very timely, and calls on parliamentarians to make a commitment about projects that could be carried out here, in the Beaufort Sea or in the waters off the coast of Greenland.
I will read the motion:
That this House notes the horror with which Canadians observe the ecological disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico and their call for action to prevent such an event in Canada, and therefore calls on the government immediately to conduct a thorough review and revision of all relevant federal laws, regulations and policies regarding the development of unconventional sources of oil and gas, including oil sands, deepwater oil and gas recovery, and shale gas, through a transparent process and the broadest possible consultation with all interested stakeholders to ensure Canada has the strongest environmental and safety rules in the world, and to report to the House for appropriate action.
This lengthy motion is important because it is to some extent the result of the incident that happened on April 20, 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded, causing an environmental disaster. According to the company, some 800,000 litres of oil are spilling into the gulf every day. That is a lot of oil. That is the company's estimate, although according to certain American government teams that have been assessing the situation, it could be nearly twice that amount. This ecological disaster is even worse than the infamous Exxon Valdez spill in the north.
This disaster, which is already affecting many ecosystems in the United States, will have very serious environmental impacts on wetlands. That is one appalling aspect of this incident, along with the economic repercussions. That is what people are now realizing. Despite everything, this ecological disaster does serve to raise awareness.
There are moratoriums on fishing, market losses and considerable revenue losses affecting fishers, along with all the ensuing human tragedies. We realize that an ecological disaster not only leads to the loss of ecosystems, the pollution of certain wetlands and the loss or endangerment of certain species, but it also causes economic losses. Today we need to demonstrate that an ecological disaster can also deal a serious economic blow. Fishers in Louisiana are beginning to realize the scope of the disaster.
On this side of the border, no one predicted this disaster. The government has been weakening environmental standards for the past five years. It is easy for the official opposition to accuse the Conservative government of being too lenient and authorizing exploratory drilling.
The truth is that the previous government, the Liberal government, was the first to weaken environmental standards. On March 26, 2005, without having held a public debate on the issue, the environment minister at the time, the member for Saint-Laurent—Cartierville, published a regulatory amendment in the Canada Gazette that some considered to be cosmetic and unimportant. His amendment sought to change the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act so that exploratory offshore drilling projects could get away with a screening type assessment and would no longer be required to undergo a comprehensive study. The purpose of the amendment was to remove exploratory drilling projects from the consultation process, thereby denying all stakeholders the opportunity to comment.
The Bloc Québécois reacted because we are in touch with the people. We toured all regions of Quebec in 2005, especially those along the St. Lawrence. We eventually got to the Îles de la Madeleine, where groups told us about the federal government's proposed regulatory amendment to make environmental assessment regulations more lenient.
The people of Îles de la Madeleine told us to take a close look at the regulatory amendment because it would have posed a danger to them. They asked us to intervene. We met with groups such as Attention Fragiles and the Îles de la Madeleine preservation society. They asked us to intervene.
On April 25, 2005, we wrote to the Minister of the Environment to say that “the purpose of this proposed regulatory amendment is to change the type of environmental assessment of the first exploratory drilling project in an offshore area”.
We told the then-minister that he “knew that exploratory drilling projects were being planned for the Gulf. If the regulatory amendment passes, sites like Old Harry, Cape Ray and others off the coast of Nova Scotia identified for exploratory drilling would be subject to a screening type assessment instead of a comprehensive study”.
We reminded him that “the renewable resources in that area were critical to the tourism and fishing economy in the Gaspé and Îles de la Madeleine region”. We intervened.
What did the environment department say in a statement attached to the proposed regulation change? Here is what it said: “—the environmental effects of offshore exploratory drilling are, in general, minor, localized, short in duration and reversible”.
That was the department's reasoning for its regulatory changes. It said that the environmental effects of offshore exploratory drilling were, in general, minor, localized, short in duration and reversible.
But that is not what we have been seeing lately, and it is not true of the April 20 catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Liberal Party made the first wave of changes that weakened the environmental assessment regulatory regime. The Conservatives picked up where the Liberals left off and, in a more wide-ranging bill, also changed the environmental assessment rules, so that future oil projects would not come under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, but the National Energy Board. That is another big mistake by the federal government: shifting responsibility for environmental assessments from government institutions whose mission is to protect the environment to organizations with an economic focus that serve the oil industry.
We criticized this decision by the government long before the April 20 catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. We still believe that the environmental impact of drilling projects should be assessed by the people whose job it is to protect the environment, not the people who are responsible for increasing oil production. That is how the federal government thinks.
There are three threats on the horizon. I will identify three types of projects. The first is a drilling project in Newfoundland that got under way a few weeks ago, 430 kilometres from St. John's. The goal is to drill 2,600 kilometres below sea level, which is a kilometre further than the project in the Gulf of Mexico where the catastrophe occurred on April 20.
In other words, because of the Liberal government's changes, this exploratory drilling in Newfoundland was not subject to a thorough assessment, but a simple screening. If the regulatory amendment had not been made in 2005, this project in Newfoundland would have been subject to a thorough assessment and public consultations where stakeholders, scientists and people concerned about the environment could have proposed a number of risk scenarios with regard to the exploratory drilling. Because of the Liberal changes, this project in Newfoundland was not subject to a thorough assessment. That is the first risk.
Last week, when officials appeared before the parliamentary committee we asked them a number of questions. Oil drilling occurs in Canada, including in Orphan Basin. We asked the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board what the timeframe would be in the event of an accident like the one on April 20 in the Gulf of Mexico. What would be the monitoring plan? What would they do? What could we expect? The board's spokesperson, Sean Kelly, told us that a platform would have to be sent from the Gulf of Mexico to be able to drill a relief well at such depths and that it would take at least 11 days for the platform to arrive. According to another analyst, it would take four to five months to drill a relief well. We know what that means. Someone decides to drill at 2,600 km below sea level, which is deeper than the oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and if there were a similar accident, a platform would have to come from the Gulf of Mexico. It would take 11 days for the machine to arrive and five months before the drilling was complete.
Then, the government told us not to worry, that everything was fine, and that it was all in our heads. They said that there was no risk, and that people on the Îles de la Madeleine and Canadians do not need to worry. That is what the government calls an emergency plan. That is completely unacceptable. The government has been making decisions with its eyes closed since 2005. First, it was the Liberals, and those who went along with them without changing the regulations, and then it was the Conservatives, who slipped amendments into Bill C-9.
If an accident were to happen, someone would have to assume the ministerial responsibility. Ministers in this House would have to take responsibility if ever there were an accident off Newfoundland or elsewhere offshore.
We are calling on the government to come to its senses and amend the regulations to ensure that this type of drilling is subject to comprehensive studies and that consultations are held. The public and experts have a right to be heard. On this side of the House, we believe that we must learn from the environmental disaster of April 20, although the government does not seem to agree.
The government has always said that it is important to harmonize with the United States. But President Obama declared a moratorium and wants to create an independent commission to assess the situation. He does not want to move forward until they have examined the issue. Here, our government is agreeing to continue oil drilling off Newfoundland. Plus, it continues to be in favour of calls for tender from oil companies for the Beaufort Sea. In 2007, the government sold the rights to explore three parcels in the Beaufort Sea for about $50 million to oil companies, including Exxon. And in 2008, it sold BP the rights to drill oil wells 700 metres below sea level.
The government is telling us that no drilling will take place before 2014, and that is true. However, we need to understand the signals that we have been getting in parliamentary committee lately. Representatives from BP came to see parliamentarians and were unable to say if it would be possible to clean up the mess if an accident were to occur in Canada's north. They did not know if they would be able to clean up after a disaster. The representative from BP did not have enough information to respond to the questions.
What is more, since it is costly to operate during the off season, from the start of December until spring, oil companies have asked to drill the northern Canadian relief wells later, after drilling activity has begun. They have asked an economically driven, non-environmental organization to give them an exemption from drilling relief wells because it costs too much. What costs too much? Will it cost BP too much to clean up the mess from April 20?
The oil industry is pressuring us to weaken—some would say relax—environmental standards once again and give breaks to and create loopholes for an industry, which is completely unacceptable.
I will take advantage of the fact that the Minister of Foreign Affairs is here to remind him that next week, from June 9 to 11, there will be an important Arctic Council meeting. Canada is expected to take a leadership role there. Drilling will begin this summer in Greenland, which is very close to Canada. They hope to drill in Baffin Bay, near the mouth of Lancaster Sound, near where the government wants to establish a marine conservation area, at the boundary of Canada's territory.
There will be risks for Canada and Quebec. Greenland is far away, but it does not seem so far when you look at the devastation in the Gulf of Mexico.
We are hoping to see some Canadian leadership to ensure that we have the means necessary to prevent a disaster like the one on April 20 from ever happening in Canada.